Penrith Panthers were defeated 22-16 by the Newcastle Knights in the opening round of the Jersey Flegg Cup finals at St Marys Leagues Stadium on Saturday.
Despite their best efforts, Jono Rolfe’s team packed full of 10 SG Ball championship winning players struggled to overcome a 12-point halftime deficit to steal the win from the Knights.
Having finished inside the top three, Panthers have a second chance and will play in the minor semi-final next weekend.
The Panthers defended their line fearlessly in the opening eight minutes, with Newcastle granted four back-to-back sets within close range of their try line. A grubber kick from Kurt Donoghoe was scooped up by Panthers fullback Liam Ison who leaped back into the field of play to relieve the defensive pressure.
Jesse McLean halted another try-scoring effort by the Knights a few minutes later, stepping up in the line to shove Keanu Wainohu-Kemp into touch as the winger leapt into the corner attempting to ground the ball.
After being awarded a penalty for a dangerous tackle on Ryley Smith, the Panthers clawed their way to the try line, with Keagan Russell-Smith creating the play for Zac Lipowicz to charge his was over before reaching out through a crowd of Knights to ground the ball. Russell-Smith failed to convert the try from medium-range.
Desperate for a response, Newcastle turned the momentum of the game seven minutes later, when they got the ball back after their fifth tackle kick and second-rower Oryn Kelly faked a pass to the left before stepping off his right foot to level the scores. Captain Thomas Cant kicked the conversion from in-front to give his team a two-point lead.
A stellar play from the Knights in the 23rd minute saw Donoghoe deliver Ethan Ferguson a cut-out ball before the winger kicked infield to Fletcher Sharpe who finished the effort untouched. Cant’s conversion gave Newcastle an eight-point lead.
An error from Penrith centre Elone Taufa opened the flood gates for Newcastle to extend their advantage in the 30th minute. Using the right edge once more, James Johnson stepped inside to snatch four more points, while Cant’s conversion waved away.
Another defensive play from McLean had the crowd on their feet in the final minute of play as the winger read the Knights attacking passage, coming infield to line up Sharpe and put him on his back.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 4 - KNIGHTS 16
The Panthers came out of the sheds firing, with Taufa bagging the opening four-pointer of the second half in the 38th minute by taking on the line on the left edge to ground the ball. Russell-Smith’s conversion couldn’t find the uprights as the Panthers trailed by eight.
Cody Lawson spilt the fifth tackle kick in the 46th minute, allowing Knights interchange prop Paul Bryan to pick up the loose ball and run straight to the try-line with limited defensive pressure.
Seven minutes later at the other end of the field, Lawson looked almost certain to score but the referee ruled a double knock-on, bringing the ball back to the 10-metre line and giving Penrith the scrum feed.
Lawson got his second chance off the scrum set, when Russell-Smith ran into the line to open a right-edge overlap for the winger to launch into the air and ground the ball into the corner. Unfortunately for the halfback, his conversion waved away for the third time in the game.
Ison created something from nothing with five minutes left of the game, kicking a grubber that ricocheted off the back of Newcastle’s legs before the fullback regained possession of the ball and flicked a pass to Lawson, sending him over in the corner for a double. Russell-Smith’s conversion fell painfully short while the Panthers trailed by six-points.
The Panthers will play either the St George Illawarra Dragons or Wests Tigers at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium next Saturday in an elimination final.
FULL-TIME: PANTHERS 16 - KNIGHTS 22